Empty Words by Mario Levrero, translated from the Spanish by Annie McDermott, Coffee House Press, 2019
“The best part about Coffee House Press books is that they are often difficult to categorise, difficult to describe . . . because they are pushing the boundaries of form, language, syntax, genre, and so on,” says Chris Fischbach, publisher for Coffee House, in a recent interview with Asymptote’s Sarah Moses. Empty Words, the first book by Uruguayan author Mario Levrero to be translated into English (by Annie McDermott), fits this description to a tee. The premise is simple: the narrator, whose voice Levrero claims to be his own with some (potentially heavy) editing, is determined to alter his personality through altering his handwriting. Since, according to graphology, “there’s a profound connection between a person’s handwriting and his or her character,” surely altering one’s handwriting through diligent daily practice would bring about discernible changes in personality.
However, this intention is fragmented and repeatedly disrupted from the very beginning of the narrator’s exercises for two key reasons: external interruptions, and the repeated intrusion of “The Discourse,” an unintended literary by-product of his handwriting exercises “that won’t leave (him) alone.” The former is evident from the beginning of the diary/novel in “Part One: Exercises.” After two detailed goal-setting entries dated September 10 and September 11, 1990, the narrator is derailed only to return on September 24 “since (his) mother’s stroke took (him) away from home.” This serious disruption is coupled with an immediate distraction “in the form of a small, flustered woman calling to me in an angry voice.” The high and noble aims of these exercises which the narrator hopes will “catapult (him) blissfully into a life of happiness, joy, money, and success with women” are thus undercut almost immediately by the intrusiveness of daily life and family. This fragmentation continues over the course of several months as the narrator’s ailing mother continues to worry him, and his annoying wife and son, Alicia and Juan Ignacio, repeatedly distract him. His intentions to become as focused and as unrealistically solipsistic as possible are thus punctuated with mundane distractions, standing in comic juxtaposition with the narrator’s lofty ambitions.
A primary conflict that emerges in the first part of Empty Words is therefore the individual’s struggle for control, where the attempt to manipulate his handwriting acts as a microcosm of, or perhaps even an outlet for anxiety around, the powerlessness the narrator feels in his life. While the handwriting exercises are intended to be fully centred on calligraphy and “empty words,” the diary-like format of daily practice results in the narrator’s frustrations bleeding into his practice. Over time, his complaints centre around “this family (he) finds (himself) in,” presided over by Alicia, who he describes as “[a] fractal being . . . with a fractal pattern of behaviour.” The family is governed by a law the narrator formulates as: “Any movement toward a goal will immediately be diverted toward another goal, and so on, and the movement toward the original goal may or may not ever be resumed.” This is mirrored in the narrator’s own handwriting exercises, which are perpetually sidetracked by “subject matter” and literary material, reflecting a fractal/fractured psyche within himself that becomes more apparent as “The Discourse” emerges.
This brings us to “Part Two: The Empty Discourse,” in which the narrator’s writing is split into “The Discourse” and “Exercises.” The former essentially becomes free writing aimed at some therapeutic reconciliation between the Freudian ego and trauma or truth that the narrator believes is hidden from his conscious self by his unconscious. This takes place alongside the original “Exercises” featuring the ongoing battle between the narrator’s discipline and the chaotic nature of his household, the family’s impending move to a new house, Alicia’s hyperactivity, and the appearance of a cat that baits the family dog with its comings and goings.
It becomes clear in “Part Two” that Empty Words is not really about the narrator’s attempt to reverse engineer the process of graphology, but is rather an insight, via introspective daily entries, into the embattled narrator’s struggle to come to terms with his present situation as well as the trajectory of his life thus far. Dreams and Freudian terminology receive frequent mention throughout the novel as the narrator struggles to get a hold on what it really is that bothers him so very much, creating immense psychological stress and physical degradation via excessive smoking and lack of exercise. This struggle for clarity through self-regulated therapy-by-writing is what makes “The Discourse” so compelling. Here, “empty words” become the narrator’s attempt to make sense of himself via words that come close to, but cannot really pin down, that unnameable “something” alluded to in the prologue:
“Something within me, which is not me, which I search for”
Which is close to love but not quite love,
Which could be confused with freedom,
With the being’s absolute identity—–
But which can’t be contained in words”
While this “something” is un-signifiable through words, there are points in “The Discourse” where we get a glimpse into the probable causes for the narrator’s psychic discomfort. Initially, “The Discourse” focuses on the family dog, whom the narrator gradually liberates by slowly widening a hole in their backyard fence. The symbolic freeing of the dog through an eroding defense is compared to “another, psychological gap, which I’m also gradually widening with some kind of freedom in mind.” It is through this free writing that the narrator discovers a point of trauma and dissociation in his past, when he left Montevideo for Buenos Aires in 1985, a painful moment that resulted in a choice “to anesthetise myself instead.” Yet Empty Words suggests that this process may not necessarily be liberating, as the dog returns at one point with an injured eye and is found developing other erratic behaviours, like burying meat that eventually rots in the garden. Regardless, “The Discourse” stops some two months later, following the narrator’s glimpse of that “something,” when a chance encounter with a recording of Enrique Rodríguez’s tango orchestra gives him vital insight into his being. The narrator grows comfortable with the forgotten fragments of his life, claiming, “I’m not interested in finding answers anymore for a few moments I glimpsed those fragments of memory.”
True closure remains elusive, however, as the handwriting exercises continue in parallel to and beyond “The Discourse” in increasingly dishevelled attempts to enact some sort of control over the chaos in the narrator’s life. “Part Three” features a narrator increasingly detached from his exercises, becoming almost frustrating as he leaves large gaps between entries and describes a “fragmented” mind “in the grip of a psychological paralysis.” Any curiosity of the reader’s to know more is deflected by statements like “I’m tired of being more specific, and I don’t want to repeat myself. After all, this is just a handwriting exercise.” Other issues annoy or provide the narrator with reasons to procrastinate, including a lack of a proper workspace, bad weather, the non-stop buzzing of a generator, and the usual disruptions of dog and family. Eventually, other distressing circumstances are revealed to the reader belatedly and without detail, as the narrator reflects on these events and is filled with a newfound, if vague, determination “to turn back toward myself” and “[return] to a normal life.”
Thus the narrative comes to a somewhat abrupt close as the narrator appears more stable and determined to move on in a positive fashion, having come to terms with the things he cannot change, “the consequences of things you’ve already done.” Whether this is satisfactory for the reader is a different question, as one eventually realises the paradoxes of the “diary” that is Empty Words. What is stranger than the narrator’s estrangement from himself is the foregrounded estrangement of the reader from the text, or any text, where words threaten to be “empty,” incomplete signifiers. We are not explicitly told why the exercises come to an end, or if they do at all, but are instead left with a text that operates as a metacommentary on writing as both “a tool for exploring the unconscious and a by-product of those explorations.” That this is done throughout with humour, self-deprecating yet sincere introspection, and poetic insights into the mundane life of the narrator is Levrero’s primary success.
Ultimately, Empty Words is a sufficiently striking full-length introduction of Levrero to the English-speaking world, as well as a not-too-serious reflection on the possibilities of writing and its relationship with internal and external worlds. That being said, as anyone who has read Levrero’s short story “The Abandoned House” in Asymptote’s Summer 2015 issue would know, his oeuvre has plenty more to offer in the surrealist, dream-like, genre-bending vein. I have a sense that Empty Words is only the beginning of the potential Levrero has for English-language readers, and am looking forward to more of his work appearing in translation in future.
Once an Assistant Blog Editor for Asymptote, Chloe Lim graduated from the University of Oxford, where she obtained her BA and MSt in English Literature. She now teaches the subject in Singapore. Follow her on Twitter @chloelimx.
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